Last time in this series, we covered the five best 3rd-level spells in the game. This week, we’re looking at 4th-level spells. Thankfully for me, there is a lot less competition for the top spots in this spell bracket.
I’m judging these spells using four criteria. The first and most obvious of these is combat effectiveness. If a spell ends fights every time you use it, then it’s probably a good spell. However, spells are flexible tools that often bring a huge amount of noncombat power to the table. I am also looking at how many different character types want each spell. A spell useful to a wide variety of builds scores higher than one that only works for a single build. Finally, I look at how strong the spell is across levels 1–20. Some spells start off incredibly strong but fall off later, while others remain evergreen.
You attempt to send one creature that you can see within range to another plane of existence. The target must succeed on a Charisma saving throw or be banished.
If the target is native to the plane of existence you’re on, you banish the target to a harmless demiplane. While there, the target is incapacitated. The target remains there until the spell ends, at which point the target reappears in the space it left or in the nearest unoccupied space if that space is occupied.
If the target is native to a different plane of existence than the one you’re on, the target is banished with a faint popping noise, returning to its home plane. If the spell ends before 1 minute has passed, the target reappears in the space it left or in the nearest unoccupied space if that space is occupied. Otherwise, the target doesn’t return.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.
While single-target all-or-nothing spells aren’t usually my favorite when it comes to control options, Banishment is one of the better examples of such an ability. Once the target fails the initial charisma save, it is effectively removed from the battle for the spell’s duration. The goal of such a spell is usually to remove a single powerful entity till its allies are dead and the party can gang up on the single survivor. The lack of repeat saves means the party can invest heavily via options like Silvery Barbs and Unsettling Words to make sure whatever is targeted by Banishment fails that single save.
On top of this potent effect, Banishment also has the advantage of targeting the charisma stat for its save. On average, charisma is the lowest save an enemy will have, often dropping into the negatives for monstrous foes. Banishment also upcasts well, doubling its effect when cast with a 5th-level slot. Though still beaten by legendary resistance, Banishment is a premier single-target control spell, perfect for removing powerful lieutenant enemies from the fight. Fifth place.
4. Death Ward
You touch a creature and grant it a measure of protection from death.
The first time the target would drop to 0 hit points as a result of taking damage, the target instead drops to 1 hit point, and the spell ends.
If the spell is still in effect when the target is subjected to an effect that would kill it instantaneously without dealing damage, that effect is instead negated against the target, and the spell ends.
It’s generally agreed upon in the 5E community that dying is a bad thing. Thanks to Death Ward, you can ensure your target’s survival for one additional hit. This extra survivability, especially when given to high-AC characters, can force the enemies to expend significantly more resources to take them down. Death Ward also prevents instant-kill abilities like Power Word Kill from working. This function is more niche, but still handy when it comes up.
What makes this spell so useful is its 8-hour, concentration-free duration. This makes Death Ward a prime candidate for the Extended Spell metamagic, allowing the sorcerer to ward their party one day, rest, then continue to benefit from the wards the next day.
Even without metamagic, Death Ward can benefit from what is known as “rest tricking,” where long-duration spells are cast at the end of a long rest, right before slots are regained. This does require the caster to have leftover slots at the end of the day, but as long as you satisfy that condition, you can burn your remaining slots to give your party some much-needed protection. Fourth place.
3. Dimension Door
You teleport yourself from your current location to any other spot within range. You arrive at exactly the spot desired. It can be a place you can see, one you can visualize, or one you can describe by stating distance and direction, such as “200 feet straight downward” or “upward to the northwest at a 45-degree angle, 300 feet.”
You can bring along objects as long as their weight doesn’t exceed what you can carry. You can also bring one willing creature of your size or smaller who is carrying gear up to its carrying capacity. The creature must be within 5 feet of you when you cast this spell.
If you would arrive in a place already occupied by an object or a creature, you and any creature traveling with you each take 4d6 force damage, and the spell fails to teleport you.
All the power of Misty Step, but with some additional upsides. The first is a significant increase in range, going from 30 feet to a whopping 500 feet. In many combats, this range can encompass the entire map, allowing you to position yourself advantageously or leave the encounter entirely. Fifth Edition might not have great chase rules, but a 500-foot head start is hard to argue with. Dimension Door also lacks a line-of-sight requirement, meaning you can use the spell to navigate obstacles that would stymie the weaker Misty Step.
Dimension Door can even bring a buddy along with you. This can be used to transport multiple spellcasters, reducing the number of spells needed to achieve the teleportation, or as a method to provide a martial character with some normally unavailable movement. A 4th-level slot is fairly expensive for a movement spell, but when you need it, Dimension Door offers unparalleled flexibility and mobility. Third place.
This spell transforms a creature that you can see within range into a new form. An unwilling creature must make a Wisdom saving throw to avoid the effect. The spell has no effect on a shapechanger or a creature with 0 hit points.
The transformation lasts for the duration, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies. The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or the target’s level, if it doesn’t have a challenge rating). The target’s game statistics, including mental ability scores, are replaced by the statistics of the chosen beast. It retains its alignment and personality.
The target assumes the hit points of its new form. When it reverts to its normal form, the creature returns to the number of hit points it had before it transformed. If it reverts as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to its normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce the creature’s normal form to 0 hit points, it isn’t knocked unconscious.
The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.
The target’s gear melds into the new form. The creature can’t activate, use, wield, or otherwise benefit from any of its equipment.
When this spell is gained, it is easily the strongest combat option available to casters. Despite the open-ended nature of Polymorph, there are two forms that make this spell the powerhouse that it is: tyrannosaurus rex and giant ape. Of those two, I consider giant ape the stronger, as it can target the same creature with both its melee attacks and has a ranged option, but both provide a massive boost in combat efficiency to whoever gets polymorphed.
As good as this spell is, there are some common pitfalls I’ve seen players fall into when using it. The first is casting it on yourself. This is bad because, while you can maintain concentration while transformed, your new form’s concentration saves are likely to be worse than that of your original form. Meanwhile, your low AC means you’ll be getting hit a lot, greatly increasing the chance of Polymorph ending early.
The second is using Polymorph against an enemy to turn them into something harmless. While amusing, this turns Polymorph into a worse version of spells like Banishment. Yes, the target is most likely rendered harmless while the spell is active, but should their new form suffer enough damage to “kill” it, the enemy is returned to full effectiveness. This damage could be inflicted accidentally by a player or intentionally by an enemy, or it could be self-inflicted through something like fall damage. The end result is a fragile control spell instead of a super powerful buff.
The last common mistake I see with this spell is not understanding that it can serve as a heal. Polymorphing an ally who is almost unconscious means that instead of doing no damage when they fall to zero hit points, they are able to output whatever the beast gives. However, if used on a high-health target, the relative damage increase is less, as that target would be capable of continuing their offense without Polymorph.
If I were judging this spell purely at 7th level, it would easily be 1st place. Unfortunately, the lack of high-challenge-rating beasts to transform into means the spell falls off significantly at higher levels of play. However, even with that weakness, this spell claims second place.
1. Find Greater Steed
You summon a spirit that assumes the form of a loyal, majestic mount. Appearing in an unoccupied space within range, the spirit takes on a form you choose: a griffon, a pegasus, a peryton, a dire wolf, a rhinoceros, or a saber-toothed tiger. The creature has the statistics provided in the Monster Manual for the chosen form, though it is a celestial, a fey, or a fiend (your choice) instead of its normal creature type. Additionally, if it has an Intelligence score of 5 or lower, its Intelligence becomes 6, and it gains the ability to understand one language of your choice that you speak.
You control the mount in combat. While the mount is within 1 mile of you, you can communicate with it telepathically. While mounted on it, you can make any spell you cast that targets only you also target the mount.
The mount disappears temporarily when it drops to 0 hit points or when you dismiss it as an action. Casting this spell again re-summons the bonded mount, with all its hit points restored and any conditions removed.
You can’t have more than one mount bonded by this spell or find steed at the same time. As an action, you can release a mount from its bond, causing it to disappear permanently.
Whenever the mount disappears, it leaves behind any objects it was wearing or carrying.
Where Polymorph turned someone into an an animal, Find Greater Steed summons an animal to serve as a mount, both in and out of combat. The standout mount options here are the griffon, pegasus, and peryton.* All three of these have flying speed, allowing your character to take to the skies.
In combat, this permanent flight grants increased flexibility in positioning and safety from melee enemies. The mount can also serve as a reasonably strong combatant in their own right. In particular, the steed’s ability to benefit from spells the rider casts on themselves means options like Haste or Tenser’s Transformation pull double duty for a single spell slot, increasing the effectiveness of both mount and rider.
Out of combat, this spell nullifies most natural barriers the party may come across. Given enough time, the steed can ferry the entire party wherever they need to go without the expenditure of spells or abilities. This spell is available to paladins at 13th level and to bards at 10th, and it continues to be amazing up to and including 20th level. First place.
That wraps up 4th-level spells. Tune in next time as I cover the 5th-level roster.